Thursday, March 31, 2011

Countess Dracula (1971)

Directed by Peter Sasdy
Starring Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Elès

"I’d rather have you as you are…then see you parading yourself like some jaded young slut from the whore house!"

Castles, graveyards, fog, cleavage, blood, fancy costumes, silly accents…oh yeah, it’s Hammer time again. During its heyday, England’s Hammer Studios churned out piles of sumptuous gothic horror flicks, always with a heady stench of eroticism. Countess Dracula features Polish-born scream queen Ingrid Pitt, one year after she bared it all for Hammer’s classic lesbian vampire film, The Vampire Lovers.

If you're seeking vampires (lesbian or otherwise), beware. Countess Dracula does feature a Countess, but she’s not the spawn of that infamous bloodsucker. In fact, she’s not a vampire at all. Rather, it’s a Hammer-ized retelling of the legendary Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary, whose virgin-killing exploits were a massive influence on vampire lore. As legend has it, Countess Bathory drained the blood from hundreds of young girls, not for vampiric sustenance, but for cosmetic use, to make her look young again. In today’s world of Botox parties and anal bleaching, this scheme doesn’t seem so far fetched.

Ingrid is Countess Elizabeth Nàdasby. When we first see her, she is a shriveled and spiteful hag, who thinks nothing of crushing peasants her carriage. When her buxom maidservant cuts herself in a peach-slicing accident, Elizabeth gets splattered with blood. Miraculously, the blood has age-reversing powers, turning her weather-beaten hide into rosy young flesh.

Young and beautiful again, the countess masquerades as her own daughter, Ilona, who’s been away at school. Meanwhile, she has the real Ilona kidnapped by a goofy-looking peasant and imprisoned in his shack. Along with her newly restored beauty, the countess regains her libido and sets her sights on dashing soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Elès). This raises the bristly eyebrows of Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), Elizabeth’s conspirator and one-time lover.

How long can this charade last? Can Elizabeth find enough girl blood to feed her cosmetic craze? And when does she get naked already?

I’m about to destroy my horror fan credibility. Ready? I’m not an Ingrid Pitt guy. I like her. She’s charming, charismatic, and a joy to watch. When she emerges from her first bloody sponge-bath, beaming and twirling with glee, she’s damn near radiant. But do I think she’s sexy? Eh. If Ingrid does get you salivating, there’s an awesome scene of her dabbing blood on her naked body.

Even if Ingrid doesn’t really crank your tractor, don’t despair. Countess Dracula features cleavage galore, and some nifty nudity. Nothing to rival the boobtacular Vampire Lovers, of course, but you slobbering horndogs certainly won’t be bored.

It’s a good thing Countess Dracula delivers in the skin department, because it isn’t scary at all. Most of the kills are off-camera, and those that aren’t are practically bloodless. Ingrid’s seethes and cackles admirably, but she’s not a menacing villainess. She’s too sweet. During her scenes with the smitten Imre, the music swells and swoons as if this were a romance, and not a perverted ruse. Excuse me, isn’t this lady slashing virgins for beauty treatments? I am not involved in her emotional wellbeing. The only time she’s really scary is when she’s under that old lady makeup. The really villain is Captain Dobi, whose lust for Elizabeth turns to jealous rage as he sees her cavorting with Imre. Dobi’s bizarre intonation, eerie stare, and face-devouring beard really sell the character.

Countess Dracula, like many Hammer films, teeters stylistically between elegance and outright camp. The setting and costumes are great, especially that iconic castle set, with its hidden passageways and stained glass boudoirs. The film has a hazy soft focus, as if filmed through Vaseline. This sometimes makes the firelight leave trails on the screen, adding a trippy effect. Some moments, like the above sponge-bath scene, are pretty giggle-inducing. Also, there’s this guy:

Vampires or no vampires, this is a groovy slice of ‘70s gothicana, with a spooky atmosphere and eye-catching performances. If you dig Ingrid Pit or Hammer Studios, there’s definitely worse ways to spend a rainy night.

--Paolo Phibes

1 comment:

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